What To Do After Someone Has Died

Nothing has to be done immediately after a person’s death. Take the time you need. Some people want to stay in the room with the body; others prefer to leave. You might want to have someone make sure the body is lying flat before the joints become stiff. This rigor mortis begins sometime during the first few hours after death.

After the death, how long you can stay with the body may depend on where death happens. If it happens at home, there is no need to move the body right away. This is the time for any special religious, ethnic, or cultural customs that are performed soon after death.

If the death seems likely to happen in a facility, such as a hospital or nursing home, discuss any important customs or rituals with the staff early on, if possible. That will allow them to plan so you can have the appropriate time with the body.

Some families want time to sit quietly with the body, console each other, and maybe share memories. You could ask a member of your religious community or a spiritual counselor to come. If you have a list of people to notify, this is the time to call those who might want to come and see the body before it is moved.

Coping with Loss

When your spouse or loved one dies, your entire world may change. You may feel a variety of different emotions like anger, guilt, or sadness. Remember that everyone grieves differently and there is no sole right way to grieve. You may find that surrounding yourself with loved ones, joining a support group, or talking to a professional may help you cope with loss.

What to do after a death

When people die, they leave behind a life that must be closed out. Their funeral must be planned, their bank accounts closed, their pets rehomed, and their final bills paid.

When someone you love dies, the job of handling those personal and legal details may fall to you. It’s a stressful, bureaucratic task that can take a year or more to complete, all while you are grieving the loss.

The amount of paperwork can take survivors by surprise. There are a lot of details to take care of.

You can’t do it alone. Settling a deceased family member’s affairs is not a one-person task. You’ll need the help of others, ranging from professionals like lawyers or CPAs, who can advise you on financial matters, to a network of friends and relatives, to whom you can delegate tasks or lean on for emotional support. You may take the lead in planning the funeral and then hand off the financial details to the executor. Or you may be the executor, which means you’ll oversee settling the estate and spend months, maybe even years, dealing with paperwork.

To Do Immediately After Someone Dies

Get a legal pronouncement of death

If your loved one died in a hospital or nursing home where a doctor was present, the staff will handle this. An official declaration of death is the first step to getting a death certificate, a critical piece of paperwork. But if your relative died at home, especially if it was unexpected, you’ll need to get a medical professional to declare her dead. To do this, call 911 soon after she passes and have her transported to an emergency room where she can be declared dead and moved to a funeral home. If your family member died at home under hospice care, a hospice nurse can declare him dead. Without a declaration of death, you can’t plan a funeral much less handle the deceased’s legal affairs.

Tell friends and family

Send out a group text or mass email or make individual phone calls to let people know their loved one has died. To track down all those who need to know, go through the deceased’s email, and phone contacts. Inform coworkers and the members of any social groups or church the person belonged to. Ask the recipients to spread the word by notifying others connected to the deceased. Put a post about the death on social media. Sharing the news “sooner, rather than later” is generally the best practice. Emotions and other’s responses to the news may vary widely. Offer your support when able but be sure to protect your own emotions and natural response as well. Welcome any offers from others to help share the news with others who will want to know.

Find out about existing funeral and burial plans

Many individuals express their wishes for end-of-life arrangements ahead of time with a last will & testament, advance directive, or other medical document. Other times, these wishes may have been communicated verbally to one’s significant other, children, or even healthcare staff such as their doctor, nurse or a death doula.

If no wishes have been documented or otherwise communicated, discuss options with the closest family members in order to make a decision on what arrangements seem most appropriate.

Be sure to take into account any religious preferences or cultural norms.

You need to discuss what the person wanted in terms of a funeral, what you can afford and what the family wants.

Within a Few Days of Death

Make funeral, burial or cremation arrangements

  • Search the paperwork to find out if there was a prepaid burial plan. If not, you’ll need to choose a funeral home and decide on specifics like where the service will be held, whether to cremate, where the body or ashes will be interred and what type of tombstone or urn to order. It’s a good idea to research funeral prices to help you make informed decisions.
  • If the person was in the military or belonged to a fraternal or religious group, contact the Veterans Administrationor the specific organization to see if it offers burial benefits or conducts funeral services.
  • Get help with the funeral. Line up relatives and friends to be pallbearers, to eulogize, to plan the service, to keep a list of well-wishers, to write thank-you notes and to arrange the post-funeral gathering.
  • Get a friend or relative who is a wordsmith to write an obituary, or you may want to use a template that can be found on the internet. Keep in mind you’ll typically pay “for each line of text” of any obituary posted in local newspapers, so it’s a good idea to make those as short as possible.

Longer obituaries can often be published online for free or distributed directly to friends and family if being used as keepsake honoring one’s life accomplishments and legacy.

Resources can be tremendously helpful in understanding available options, saving time & money, and allowing the family to focus more energy towards honoring one’s life and taking care of one another. These days, it’s also widely accepted to use online technology to better allow for digital participation or attendance of end-of-life celebrations for family or friends who live far away or otherwise have medical or age-related challenges with attending in-person.

Notify any named parties within the will and set initial expectations

Now is not the time to stress over interpreting one’s will, though it can be helpful to at least initiate a conversation with anyone named in the document to let them know. Setting the right expectations is very important since this will likely be a first-time experience for you or any heirs/beneficiaries.

For now, simply let them know who will be working with them (typically named “executor” or “personal representative” within documents) and ask for their patience as getting started with navigating the responsibilities to follow is typically a slower process than expected or portrayed in pop-culture.

In these early conversations, it’s entirely okay to not have, or be able to provide, exact answers if pressed by family members.

If no will can be found, intestacy laws will apply and next steps can be outlined by the local probate judge, or probate clerk, within the county of your loved one’s primary residence.

It incredibly helpful to make use of instructional books or online articles before beginning the process.

Secure the property

Lock up the deceased’s home and vehicle. Ask a friend or relative to water the plants, get the mail and throw out the food in the refrigerator. If there are valuables, such as jewelry or cash, in the home, lock them up. Don’t forget to check under mattresses or within coat pockets in the closet to find any cash that might be hidden and find a safe place to store any valuables like jewelry, car keys or family heirlooms.

Wash any clothes or bed linens and clean any bathrooms if the home will be unoccupied for a while.

Depending on family relationships, it can be worthwhile to ask a trusted friend or family member to join you— not only as an extra set of helping hands, but also as a witness to your actions to help prevent any family disputes or accusations.

Provide care for pets

Make sure pets have caretakers until there’s a permanent plan for them. Send them to stay with a relative who likes animals or board them at a kennel.

Forward mail

Go to the post office and put in a forwarding order to send the mail to yourself or whoever is working with you to see to the immediate affairs. You don’t want mail piling up at the deceased’s home, telegraphing to the world that the property is empty. This is also the first step in finding out what subscriptions, creditors and other accounts will need to be canceled or paid. “The person’s mail is a wealth of information going through it is a practical way to see what the person’s assets and bills are. It will help you find out what you need to take care of.”

Ask a neighbor or nearby friend to keep a watch over the home for any evidence of unusual activity or to help avoid any obvious signs that the home is unoccupied, such as the overflow of mail, amazon deliveries or newspapers piling up near the front door.

This process can be tremendously helpful for surfacing any unpaid bills, active subscriptions or accounts that should be closed.

Notify your family member’s employer

Ask for information about benefits and any paychecks that may be due. Also inquire about whether there is a company-wide life insurance policy.

Pause and take some time to grieve, mourn and self-care

Grief has many stages and it’s easy to get distracted by “all of the things to get done.” So much that the sudden waves of changing emotions can quickly become overwhelming. Make sure you have a support group or healthy outlet for mourning and properly processing your feelings.

Self-care is a vital step… both initially and over the weeks, months and years to follow.

Two Weeks After Death

Secure certified copies of death certificates

Get 10 copies. You’re going to need death certificates to close bank and brokerage accounts, to file insurance claims and to register the death with government agencies, among other things. The funeral home you’re working with can get copies on your behalf, or you can order them from the vital statistics office in the state in which the person died.

Find the will and the executor

Your loved one’s survivors need to know where any money, property or belongings will go. Ideally, you talked with your relative before they passed and told you where they kept their will. If not, look for the document in a desk, a safety deposit box or wherever she kept important papers. People usually name an executor (the person who will manage the settling of the estate) in their will. The executor needs to be involved in most of the steps going forward. If there isn’t a will, the probate court judge will name an administrator in place of an executor.

While being named as the executor or personal representative over one’s estate is a big honor and testament of a trusted relationship, it can also require a considerable amount of time and work. Being named does not create a requirement for that person to accept or serve, so conversations should be had with any named individuals to discuss the responsibilities involved and gauge one’s willingness (or ability) to act.

Meet with a trusts and estates attorney

While you don’t need an attorney to settle an estate, having one makes things easier. If the estate is worth more than $50,000, it is suggested that you hire a lawyer to help navigate the process and distribute assets. Estates can get complicated. The executor should pick the attorney.

Contact a CPA

If your loved one had a CPA, contact them if not, hire one. The estate may have to file a tax return, and a final tax return will need to be filed on the deceased’s behalf.

Notify the IRS and obtain a Tax ID number for the estate

Once someone has passed away their individual social security number loses its effective purpose and value. As a result, a new tax ID number must be obtained from the IRS in order to authorize activities on behalf of the estate.

This new number is commonly referred to as an E.I.N., which technically means “employer identification number,” though it can be more helpful to think of it as the “estate identification number.”

Either way, this new estate E.I.N. can be applied for online, by FAX or mail, and will ultimately be used to close the estate when filing the final Form 1041 tax form.

Determine if you will need to take the will to probate

Probate is the legal process of executing a will. You’ll need to do this at a county or city probate court office. Probate court makes sure that the person’s debts and liabilities are paid and that the remaining assets are transferred to the beneficiaries. Be sure to check the way certain assets are titled in order to assess whether they will fall into probate or should pass directly to known beneficiaries.

The probate process isn’t one-size-fits-all, but rather, may occur in different ways depending upon the location, type or probate required, ownership & titling of assets and the overall fair market value of assets left behind in the estate.

In order to authorize transactions or direct action by institutions, agents or advisors holding access to assets of the estate, you’ll need to either obtain “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration” by visiting that old courthouse building downtown.

While visiting the probate court can be an unfamiliar (or downright anxious) experience for some, keep in mind that the actual probate clerks and judges who work there are sensitive to your situation and trained to help.

That said, because the clerk staff are not attorneys, keep in mind that they’re unable to provide any individualized guidance which could be misunderstood as legal advice.

Track down assets make an inventory of all assets

One of the largest responsibilities of an executor is compiling a complete inventory of all assets in the estate and their estimated fair market value. While this is formally required for determining whether probate is necessary or what inheritance taxes may be due, it’s also a best practice to help minimize the likelihood of arguments among family members.

For many items, especially those with sentimental value or similar descriptions such as jewelry, collectibles or family heirlooms, it can be really helpful to include pictures of the asset within the inventory report to help avoid confusion.

Comb your family member’s tax returns, mail, email, brokerage and bank accounts, deeds and titles to find assets. Don’t leave any safety deposit box or filing cabinet unopened.

Identify and pay important bills or outstanding claims

Keep track of any bills or claims paid by the estate or payments received, such as unearned income or social security benefits. This accounting will be important for sharing as an accurate and transparent reporting to the probate court, advisors, family and on income tax forms of the estate.

It can be helpful to also indicate which bills are ongoing (such as utilities, rent/mortgage, credit cards or car loans). Not only will this help ensure the bills are paid on time, but also provides a great way to monitor usage and assess when these services can be cancelled if being unused (i.e. cable, phone & internet services).

Share the list with the executor so that important expenses like the mortgage, taxes and utilities are taken care of while the estate is settled.

Publish a notice to creditors

The public posting of a notice to creditors is the formal process for informing any creditors of the estate of their opportunity to submit any unpaid bills or outstanding debt of the estate.

Local laws determine the format and frequency of publishing these notices in order to ensure effectiveness. As such, it’s helpful to use online tools to help automate the process.

If this process is overlooked or skipped, it’s possible for creditors to surface months or even years afterwards with a legal right to demand payment t hereby forcing heirs to reopen the estate.

Cancel services no longer needed

To further help prevent fraud or identity theft, you should also cancel any voter’s registrations & unused services or accounts such as cable, internet & monthly subscriptions, and cell phone service.

While it’s common for family members to keep government issued documents like Passports as a memento, they can also be destroyed or cancelled and returned to the family by working with the U.S. Department of Service CLASP unit.

Register for DMA “Do Not Contact” List

The Data & Marketing Association (DMA) maintains a Deceased Do Not Contact List (DDNC) for the sole purpose of requiring all DMA members to remove the names and addresses of deceased individuals from all marketing lists.

There is no fee or cost to register online for the Deceased Do Not Contact List, and only takes a few minutes, so this is a really good way for family members, friends or executors to reduce the amount of marketing & advertising materials (a.k.a. “junk mail”) being received by mail. The DDNC records are updated and distributed to members monthly, so don’t be surprised if it takes 2 or 3 months to begin noticing the effect of receiving less mail.

Either way, taking a moment to register for the Do Not Contact List is an important step in minimizing the risk of future identify theft or fraud abuse.

For any materials which continue to arrive, you can notify these companies by simply writing “Deceased, Return to Sender” and leaving the envelope in the mailbox for the postmaster to return.

Notify the following of your loved one’s death:

  • The Social Security Administration:If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, you need to stop the checks. Some family members may be eligible for death benefits from Social Security. Generally, funeral directors report deaths to the Social Security Administration, but, ultimately, it’s the survivors’ responsibility to tell the SSA. Contact your local SSA office to do so. The agency will let Medicaid know that your loved one died. These reports cannot be made online, so instead, you will need to call the applicable social security local field office or the national help number: 1-800-772-1213.
  • Life insurance companies:If your loved one had a life insurance policy, it’s important to alert the carrier of the death and begin the process of submitting a claim against the policy. You’ll need a death certificate and policy numbers to make claims on any policies the deceased had.
  • Banks, financial institutions:If your loved one left a list of accounts and online passwords, it will be much easier to close or change accounts. If the person didn’t, you’ll need a copy of the death certificate.

With banks and financial institutions, calling each institution ahead of time to pre-arrange a conversation, or meeting, with a manager-level employee to save time by making sure they’re familiar with the internal procedures for handling these conversations is recommended.

During these pre-planning calls, be sure to ask what specific documentation they will require before discussing details of the account with you, and whether these documents (like death certificates) must be originals or can be certified copies.

  • Financial advisers, stockbrokers:Determine the beneficiary listed on accounts. Depending on the type of asset, the beneficiary may get access to the account or benefit simply by filling out appropriate forms and providing a copy of the death certificate (no executor needed).
  • Credit agencies:To prevent identity theft, send copies of the death certificate to the three major firms: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Open new bank account, and transfer or retitle assets

Depending upon the type of account and whether it was co-titled or shared with another individual, remaining funds must generally be transferred into a new account titled in the name of the estate.

This new bank account will also serve as the checking account used to pay any ongoing bills such as mortgages, utilities, or receive funds like unearned wages.

Be sure to access any safe deposit boxes in order to inventory the contents or open a new security box to safe-keep any valuables found within the home.

Cancel driver’s license

This removes the deceased’s name from the records of the Department of Motor Vehicles and prevents identity theft. Contact the local DMV for specific instructions, but you will need a copy of the death certificate.

Close credit card accounts

Contact customer service and tell the representative that you’re closing the account on behalf of a deceased relative. You’ll need to provide a copy of the death certificate to do this, too. Keep records of accounts you close and inform the executor of any outstanding balances on the cards.

Terminate insurance policies

Contact providers to end coverage for the deceased on home, auto and health insurance policies, and ask that any unused premium be returned.

Delete or memorialize social media accounts

You can delete Facebook or Instagram accounts, but some survivors choose to turn them into a memorial for their loved one instead. A memorialized Facebook profile stays up with the word “Remembering” in front of the deceased’s name. Friends will be able to post on the timeline. Whether you choose to delete or memorialize, you’ll need to contact the company with copies of your ID as well as the death certificate. Also, don’t forget to look for any files, purchased media or pictures stored on computer hard drives or cloud storage accounts.

Close email accounts

To prevent identity theft and fraud, it’s a good idea to shut down the deceased’s email account. If the person set up a funeral plan or a will, she may have included log-in information so you can do this yourself. If not, you’ll need copies of the death certificate to cancel an email account. The specifics vary by company, but most require a death certificate and verification that you are kin or the executor.

If no will can be found, intestacy laws will apply and next steps can be outlined by the local probate judge, or probate clerk, within the county of your loved one’s primary residence.

‍Final Finishes

Make a decision about compensation for the executor

Though not required, many individuals (and effectively all attorneys or professional executors) elect to take some compensation based upon the amount of work involved.

Each state has its own laws around the maximum fees allowable, which is generally based upon a combination of the value of the assets, degree of complexity and overall time involved.

It’s helpful to review these laws, or use an online executor fee calculator, to help determine what compensation is allowable for your situation before deciding whether or not to claim the fee.

File returns & pay any taxes

Generally, a Form 1040 individual income taxes will need to be filed for the portion of year covering Jan 1st until the date of passing. Additionally, an IRS Form 1041 “estate” income tax return will need to be filed covering the remaining portion of the year from the date of death until Dec 31st, and annually thereafter until the estate is closed.

Depending on the primary residence of the individual, state income tax returns may also be required– again, both for the individual and for the estate.

It’s important to be aware that other death taxes exist and should be considered, such as estate tax or inheritance tax. In reality, these are uncommon as the exemption amounts are set very high and therefore generally only apply to a small minority of very large estates, particularly at the federal level.

Although many people use the terms “estate tax” and “inheritance tax” interchangeably, they are not the same thing and have a few differences.

Generally speaking, an estate tax is a state or federal tax on the overall value of an estate and is payable by the estate, whereas an inheritance tax is based only on the value of inheritance received by a beneficiary from the estate, with the beneficiary being responsible for paying the applicable tax not the estate.

There is no federal inheritance tax and only a handful of states impose one (Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey & Pennsylvania).

Distribute assets to heirs & beneficiaries

Once you feel confident that all claims have been settled and taxes paid, the personal representative can begin to distribute any remaining assets to named heirs & rightful beneficiaries of the estate.  

Final report & close the estate

Upon final distribution of the estate’s assets, and assuming no ongoing family disputes or creditor claims exists, a final estate inventory reporting can be filed with the probate court in order to officially complete the process and close the estate.

As is customary with most legal or tax-sensitive documents, it’s recommended (or pseudo required) to keep all statements, accountings, forms and tax returns for a period of 7-10 years as documentation in case any questions or problems later arise.

Considerations During the Coronavirus Pandemic

During the pandemic, it’s essential to keep in mind social distancing and other life-saving preventive measures, especially for higher-risk groups like older adults. Consider virtual options for funerals, memorial services, and other religious and bereavement activities.

The CDC has issued guidance for individuals and families, including special precautions for those who died with a confirmed or suspected case of the coronavirus.

If you need help to cope with grief and the increased stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, check this CDC list of mental health resources.

Resources for help after someone dies

888-687-2277 (toll-free)
877-434-7598 (TTY/toll-free)

Donate Life

The Living Bank

Social Security Administration
800-772-1213 (toll-free)
800-325-0778 (TTY/toll-free)

This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.